POWER OF STUPIDITY By Giancarlo Livraghi
Originally written as a special report for Entropy Gradient Reversals
I have always been fascinated with Stupidity.
My own, of course; and thats a big enough cause of anxiety.
But things get much worse when one has a chance to find out how Big People take Big
We generally tend to blame awful decisions on intentional perversity, astute
mischievousness, megalomania, etc. They are there, all right; but any careful study of
history, or current events, leads to the invariable conclusion that the single biggest
source of terrible mistakes is sheer stupidity. When it combines with other factors (as
happens quite often) the results can be devastating.
One of the many examples of stupidity is that intrigue and powermongering are called
machiavellian. Obviously nobody has read his books, as that is not what old
Another thing that surprises me (or does it?) is the very little amount of study dedicated
to such an important subject. There are University departments for the mathematical
complexities in the movements of Amazonian ants, or the medieval history of Perim island;
but I have never heard of any Foundation or Board of Trustees supporting any studies of
I have found very few good books on the subject. One I read when I was a teenager, but
never forgot. It is called A Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity by
Walter B. Pitkin of Columbia University, and was published in 1934. I found it by chance
many years ago while browsing around my mothers bookshelves; and much to my delight,
when I went to her home yesterday and looked for it, it was still there. Old as it is,
its still a very good book. Some of Professor Pitkins observations appear
extraordinarily correct sixty years later.
Now... why did he call a 300-page book a short introduction?
At the end of the book, it says: Epilogue: now we are ready to start studying the History
of Stupidity. Nothing follows.
Professor Pitkin was a very wise man. He knew that a lifetime was far too short to cover
even a fragment of such a vast subject. So he published the Introduction, and that was it.
Pitkin was well aware of the lack of previous work in the field. He had a team of
researchers hunt through the files of the Central Library in New York. They found nothing.
According to Pitkin, there were only two books on the subject: Aus der Geschichte der
menschlichen Dummheit by Max Kemmerich, and Über die Dummheit by Lewenfeld. Unfortunately
I dont understand German, though Dummheit sounds clear enough; and I
guess Kemmerich and Lewenfeld must have had a special abundance of material for their
studies, considering what happened in Germany in 1933 and following years.
In Pitkins opinion, four people out of five are stupid enough to be called
stupid. That was one and a half billion people when he wrote the book; it is
over four billion now. This, in itself, is quite stupid.
He observed that one of the problems of Stupidity is that nobody has a really good
definition of what it is. In fact geniuses are often considered stupid by a stupid
majority (though nobody has a good definition of genius, either). But stupidity is
definitely there, and there is much more of it than our wildest nightmares might suggest.
In fact, it runs the world which is very clearly proven by the way the world is
But somebody, fifty-four years later, came up with a rather interesting definition. His
name is Carlo M. Cipolla and he is Professor Emeritus of Economic History at Berkeley. All
of his books are in English, except two. The first was published by Il Mulino
in Bologna in 1988.
In that book there is a little essay called The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, which may
be the best ever written on the subject.
Here are the Five Laws of Stupidity according to Carlo Cipolla:
Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in
This is not as obvious as it sounds, says Cipolla, because:
people whom one had once judged rational and intelligent turn out to be unashamedly stupid
and day after day, with unceasing monotony, one is harassed in ones activities by
stupid individuals who appear suddenly and unexpectedly in the most inconvenient places
and at the most improbable moments.
He also observes that it is impossible to set a percentage, because any number we choose
will be too small.
The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic
of that person.
If you study the frequency of stupidity in the people who come to clean up classrooms
after hours, you find that it is much higher than you expected. You assume that this is
related to their lower level of education, or to the fact that non-stupid people have
better chances of obtaining good jobs. But when you analyze students or University
professors (or, I would add, computer programmers) the distribution is exactly the same.
Militant feminists may be incensed, says Cipolla, but the stupidity factor is the same in
both genders (or as many genders, or sexes, as you may choose to consider). No difference
in the sigma factor, as Cipolla calls it, can be found by race, color, ethnic heritage,
Third (and Golden) Law
A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons
while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
(We shall come back to this, because it is the pivotal concept of the Cipolla Theory.)
Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In
particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any
circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly
That (I would say) suggests that non-stupid people are a bit stupid but I shall get
back to this point at the end.
A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.
This is probably the most widely understood of the Laws, if only because it is common
knowledge that intelligent people, hostile as they might be, are predictable, while stupid
people are not. Moreover, its basic corollary:
A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit
leads us to the heart of the Cipolla Theory. There are four types of people, he says,
depending on their behavior in a transaction:
Hapless (or hopeless)
Someone whose actions tend to generate self-damage, but also to create advantage for
Someone whose actions tend to generate self-advantage, as well as advantage for others.
Someone whose actions tend to generate self-advantage while causing damage to others.
We already have this definition in the Third Law.
Professor Cipolla uses a matrix that looks like this:
The X axis measures the advantage gained from ones actions.
The Y axis measures the advantage gained by another person (or
Clearly, people in the I area are intelligent, people in the
B area are bandits, people in the H area are hapless, and people
in the S area are stupid.
It is also quite clear that, depending on where they fall in this matrix,
people have a greater or lesser degree of stupidity, intelligence, banditism, etc. One can
develop quite a variety of combinations, such as smart bandits or stupid bandits,
depending on the benefit-damage ratio. (In this, Cipolla observes, the amount of damage is
to be measured from the perspective of the victim, not the bandit, which makes most
thieves and criminals quite stupid.)
I guess that from here on each of us can use this matrix to study stupidity and
elaborate the application of the Cipolla Theory in all its many possible variations.
But that is not quite the end of the story.
If we draw a diagonal line across the matrix, we find that everything on the
upper right side of this line generates an improvement to the overall balance of the
system, while events (and people) on the other side cause a deterioration.
A variety of interesting analyses can be conducted by studying variables in each of the
four sectors, such a Sh and Sb, Ib and Ih, Hs and Hi, or as many sub-sectors as one may
wish to define.
For instance, the M chord in the lower right side of the grid delineates the
position of the perfect bandit: someone who causes exactly as much damage as
he or she accrues gain. Obviously, on the two sides of the diagonal you have
imperfect bandits Bi are intelligent bandits and Bs are
In a world populated exclusively by perfect bandits, the system as a whole
would be balanced; damage and advantage would cancel each other out. The same effect would
occur in a world populated by perfectly hapless people.
Of course intelligent people make the biggest contribution to society as a whole. But,
nasty as it may sound, intelligent bandits also contribute to an improvement in the
balance of society by causing more advantage than harm overall.
Hapless-intelligent people, though they lose individually, can also have
socially positive effects.
However, when stupidity gets into the act, the damage is enormously greater than the
benefit to anyone.
This proves the original point: the single most dangerous factor in any human society is
As a historian, Cipolla points out that, while the sigma factor (stupidity) is a
constant in time as well as space, a strong upcoming society has a higher percentage of
intelligent people, while a declining society has an alarming percentage of bandits with a
strong stupidity factor (sub-area Bs in the grid) among the people in power, and an
equally alarming percentage of hapless (H area) among those who are not in power.
Where are we now? Thats a good question...
Cipolla also observes that intelligent people generally know they are, bandits are
well aware of their attitude, and even hapless people have a sneaking suspicion that all
is not right.
But stupid people dont know they are stupid, and that is one more reason why they
are extremely dangerous.
Which of course leads me back to my original, agonizing question: am I stupid?
I have passed several IQ tests with good marks. Unfortunately, I know how these tests work
and that they dont prove anything.
Several people have told me I am intelligent. But that doesnt prove anything,
either. They may simply be too kind to tell me the truth. Conversely, they could be
attempting to use my stupidity for their own advantage. Or they could be just as stupid as
I am left with one little glimpse of hope: quite often, I am intensely aware of how stupid
I am (or have been). And this indicates that I am not completely stupid.
At times, I have tried to locate myself in the Cipolla matrix, using as far as
possible measurable results of action, rather than opinion, as a yardstick. Depending on
the situation, I seem to wander around the upper side of the grid, between the Hs and Ib
areas; but in some cases I am desperately lost in Sh. I just hope I am on the right side
of the diagonal as often as I think.
On a broader scale, one would expect the strongest success factors to lie in the Ib and Bi
subsectors. However, the staggering number of Sb and even Sh people who have wonderful
careers can be only explained by a strong desire on the part of many leaders to be
surrounded by as many stupid people as possible.
When I read the book, I liked it so much that I wrote a letter to Carlo Cipolla.
(I have done this sort of thing only twice in my life).
Much to my surprise, he answered, briefly but kindly.
I had two questions:
Can I have the original unpublished English text, for my English speaking
The answer was no. (He didnt say why, but I have a hunch.)
What do you think of my corollary to your theory?
In this case, the answer was Well... why not, maybe... which I took as
Enthusiastic Approval and Endorsement of...
Livraghis Corollary to Cipollas First Law
In each of us there is a factor of stupidity, which is always larger than we suppose.
This creates a three-dimensional grid and I dont think I have to take you
through the steps, because no stupid (or timid) person would have had the courage to read
Of course, one can introduce other variables, such as our own H and B factors, and other
peoples S, H and B. It may be wise to forget I, as there never is enough of that;
however, do consider B, because even the most generous person can sometimes behave like a
bandit, if only by mistake. These additional factors generate multi-dimensional models
that can get fairly difficult to manage. But even if we consider only our individual sigma
values, the complexity can become quite staggering.
Try it for yourself... and get really scared. Indice Pagina
THE POWER OF
STUPIDITY Part Two by Giancarlo Livraghi
After fifteen months, my little essay on stupidity seems to be quite alive on the
net. I am still receiving mail from different corners of the world; and its being
mirrored, linked or quoted in a number of places. The resulting dialogue made me discover
some very interesting people and some remarkable websites I didnt know.
Questions and comments from several people led me to think a little more about this
intriguing (and terrifying) subject. Here is the humble result of those
Is the Cipolla definition true?
In my early stages of learning, I was lucky enough to have teachers who set a few
principles that, many years later, remain firm in my mind.
One of those philosophical principles is that there is no such thing as
absolute truth. A true theory is simply the most convenient under
the circumstances: the one that best explains and interprets what we are studying.
I dont know which is the best absolute definition of stupidity or
even if there is one that makes any sense. I am not aware of any really effective
definition of intelligence, either.
The beauty (I think) of Carlo Cipollas definition of stupidity (and intelligence) is
that it is not based on an abstract concept but on results: a person or a behavior is
stupid or intelligent depending on what happens. This has two advantages.
The first is that it defines a person (and that persons behavior) as stupid (or
intelligent, or hapless, or a bandit) on the basis of facts; or, at least, on our
understanding and definition of facts. The second, and even more important, is that it
leads us to concentrate on the vital factor: not stupidity per se, but the damage it
There can be countless types of behavior that are, or appear, stupid but are
harmless. They come up close to neutral in the Cipolla matrix and that is, indeed,
where they belong.
For instance, sharing silly fun with friends and having a good laugh may be seen
as stupid by outsiders, but according to the Cipolla Theory such behavior is
likely to be classified as intelligent: which indeed it is, as long as the fun
shared by the people being amused is more than the annoyance or boredom caused to
bystanders. Generally the intelligence (practical advantage) of such behavior is limited
to a moment of good humor; but quite often it can lead to more relevant effects, by
sparking up cooperation and ideas in ways that would not be possible in a boring
Silly can be remarkably intelligent, while serious can be awfully
stupid... quite apart from the fact that innovative thinking is often seen as
silly by people who dont understand it.
This leads to an important subject: the relevance of non-linear thinking (as well as
emotion and humor) in all mental processes and especially in innovation. To discuss that
in a meaningful way I would need much more space than I have here. Let me just say that
the distinction of right and left mind may be interesting in
clinical experiments but, in my view, should be avoided in the general observation of
human behavior because the structure of thinking is not as simple as that and, in
any case, the various processes of perception and thought always work together and are
better understood as a whole than as the sum of separate functions.
Shortly after reading about the Cipolla Laws, I developed what came to my mind as the
First Livraghi Corollary. Then I realized that I couldnt call it
first, because I had only one. But my original feeling was right... I have
since discovered that there are at least three.
Here they are:
In each of us there is a factor of stupidity, which is always larger than we suppose
[I explained that in my original stupidity paper.]
When the stupidity of one person combines with the stupidity of others, the impact grows
geometrically i.e. by multiplication, not addition, of the individual stupidity
It seems to be a generally accepted concept that the sum of a network increases as
the square of the number of members and it seems quite obvious that the same
criterion applies to the combination of stupidity factors in individual people. This can
help to explain the well-known fact that crowds as a whole are much more stupid than any
individual person in the crowd.
The combination of intelligence in different people has less impact than the combination
of stupidity, because (Cipollas Fourth Law) non-stupid people always
underestimate the damaging power of stupid people
Stupidity is brainless it doesnt need to think, get organized or plan ahead
to generate a combined effect. The transfer and combination of intelligence is a much more
Stupid people can combine instantly into a super-stupid group or mass, while
intelligent people are effective as a group only when they know each other well and are
experienced in working together. The creation of well-tuned groups of people sharing
intelligence can generate fairly powerful anti-stupidity forces, but (unlike stupidity
bundling) they need organized planning and upkeep; and can lose a large part of their
effectiveness by the infiltration of stupid people or unexpected bursts of stupidity in
otherwise intelligent people.
In some situations these dangers can be partly offset (if not totally controlled) by being
aware of the potential problem before anything goes wrong and having backup
intelligence in the group (and in whatever equipment is being used) to fill the gaps
and correct the mistakes before the damage becomes too serious. Any good skipper of a
sailboat knows what I mean; so does any other person that has experience of an environment
where the cause-effect process is bluntly direct and tangible.
Communities with a high intelligence factor are likely to have greater potential for
long-term survival, but for that to be effective we must avoid the potentially devastating
short-term impact of shared stupidity, which (unfortunately) can cause major damage to
large numbers of non-stupid people before it self-destructs.
Another dangerous element in the equation (as pointed out by Carlo Cipolla) is
that the machinery of power tends to place intelligent bandits (sometimes even
stupid bandits) at the top of the pyramid; and they, in turn, tend to favor
and protect stupidity and keep true intelligence out of their way as much s they can. That
is, I think, an important subject per se. Maybe one day I shall try to comment on it...
[Years later, I did: in The Stupidity of Power.]
Stupidity and biology
In a basic biological environment, the stupidity problem
doesnt exist. The process is based on the production of an extremely large number of
dumb mutants. Only very few (the fittest) survive, and thats
it. From that point of view, what we see as catastrophe is just another variation in the
natural course of events. Destructive fires are understood by botanists as a
necessary, indeed desirable, step in the evolution of a forest. Millions of living
creatures that die in the process may disagree, but their opinion is irrelevant.
In that perspective, solutions are simple and very effective. If there are too many
people, all we need is another plague (or any mass slaughter device that will not
interfere too much with the overall environment) that can kill 90 percent of the
population. The surviving 10 percent, as soon as they get over the shock, are likely to
find the resulting environment quite agreeable. They are also likely to be genetically
similar: share specific traits of appearance and attitude. If they all had green hair,
pink eyes and liked rainy weather, they would soon come to consider the (extinct) people
with any other hair or eye color, as well as people that like sunny weather, as rather
quaint and inferior; their moisture-resistant history books would treat most
of us as we treat the Neanderthals.
The destruction or sterilization of our planet, by man-made nuclear (or chemical) power or
by collision with some wandering rock, would be an irrelevant detail in a cosmic
perspective; and it if happened before the development of space travel and colonization
the disappearance of our species (along with the rest of the terrestrial biosphere)
wouldnt cause much of a stir even in our galaxy.
But in the particular biological environment that is set by certain species (such as ours)
the system is based on the assumption that the environment can, and should, be controlled;
and that each individual in our species (and in other species that we protect)
should be able to live longer, and more pleasantly, than he or she would in an
uncontrolled environment. This needs a particular breed of organized
intelligence. Therefore stupidity, in this stage and type of biological
development, is extremely dangerous.
As we are human, thats what we need to worry about.
Stupidity and the millennium
There are very few things in this world that can be predicted as precisely as
the end of the 20th Century. It will happen at exactly 0 hours, 0 minutes, 0 seconds of
January 1, 2001; and we have enough shared conventional definitions to set our clocks and
watches in each of the time zones as precisely as we need to pop a cork or use a
But there is a surprisingly large number of people who think the millennium will end at
midnight on December 31, 1999. When, of course, we shall enter year two
thousand: but we shall still be in the 20th Century for another year. I know lots of
bright and well educated people who take a while to adjust to that notion. They scratch
their heads and eventually, only half-convinced, mumble something like Uhm, maybe you are
right, I guess there never was a Year Zero.
Is that stupid?
By the Cipolla definition, it is not; because its unlikely to cause any major harm,
could encourage us to refresh our rithmetic, and may lead us to celebrate twice. If
that doesnt cause too many accidents, it could mean people having twice the fun,
merchants making money twice... at the end of the story it could turn out to be quite
harmless, or even intelligent.
But... there is a problem that may hit us quite severely at the end of 1999, and that is
how clocks are set in computerized systems.
Ive heard many rather dumb comments on this subject. Such as «Haha, my Mac will
adjust to year 2000 and your PC wont» - or «Whats all the fuss about? the
clock in my computer will handle the 2000 figure.»
It seems nearly impossible to make people stop and think about broader implications than
their own personal computer. I dont want to get into technicalities
thats not my field and I leave it to the experts. Here is a link to a detailed
analysis of myths and realities and several different opinions on this matter.
It could be debated forever; but time is running out.
In any case, there seems to be enough old software around, in huge systems or in
small vital devices, to be a serious problem for lots of people who have nothing to do
with computers. A friend of mine, who is a very competent and bright EDP expert, says:
«Your coffee machine, your alarm clock and your video recorder are unlikely to have date
tantrums; your PC may well work through the turn of the century as it is, or with a few
minor adjustments; but, in spite of the OTIS disclaimer, in some parts of the world you
should be careful before you take an elevator on January 1, 2000.»
I dont think we are heading for doomsday. I guess in the next couple of years
solutions will be found. But suppose just one little bit of something, in one single
system or piece of equipment, is not fixed and tested properly ahead of time; and suppose
its in air traffic control, or a hospital, or the aiming device of a weapon... can
we really trust all of the people concerned, in every corner of the planet, do their
Big or small as the problem may be... the stupidity lies in its predictability. The
Gregorian calendar was set 415 year ago; long before any of the modern devices (electronic
or other) were conceived. How could anyone, no matter how long ago, make a computer, a
piece of software, or anything containing a time program without considering that there
would certainly be a problem if it couldnt handle year digits beyond 99? Two years
from the deadline, they are still fussing about how to untangle the mess.
A few more comments, after the fact, are in an article published in February, 2001: The
millennium and the bubble.
We could forget electronics and talk about many other things. Take pensions. In my
country, pension schemes are government controlled and compulsory. Several decades ago it
was abundantly clear that the population would get older and there would be a serious
problem. Nobody did anything about it. Quite to the contrary, they did a number of things
to make it worse: early pensions, special favors to people that neither deserved them or
needed them, etcetera on a monstrously wide scale. And now they are still
quarreling about how to try to fix the problem.
And the environment, the population explosion, the use of fossil energy... the dumb,
hierarchic rigidity of private and public organizations (including schools) in a world of
increasing turbulence and complexity... the information society, the networked
world, being potentially a powerful tool for the underprivileged, but driven by fatware in
the opposite direction...
The blind are leading the blind, stupidity is running the world. For anyone looking at us
from outer space, this could be extremely funny. But somehow it doesnt make me
laugh. Indice Pagina Indice Forum
THE STUPIDITY OF
POWER Part Three of The Power of
Stupidity by Giancarlo Livraghi
I wrote the first draft of this paper in October, 1997. It remained unfinished for
over four years. I was running into the same sort of problem that Walter Pitkin faced in
1934 when he published his Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity (see
The power of Stupidity part 1.)
Every time I went to work on it there were several examples of the Stupidity of Power. In
the events of the day or in some part of recent or remote history.
Concentrating on any of those examples meant getting into the awesome complications of
serious and tragic events or of circumstances that are very likely to lead to
disaster and are not being effectively managed ahead of time. Too complex to be discussed
effectively in what must be a short document. Too difficult to be explained without deep
studies that would take years.
So I decided to forget the examples and the facts, and to stay with the general
theory. Which, I hope, is basically simple and clear though unfortunately it
doesnt offer any specific solution.
The essence of stupidology is an attempt to explain why things dont work and
how much of that is due to human stupidity, which is the cause of most of our problems.
And even when the cause is not stupidity we make the consequences much worse by being
stupid in how we react or try to fix the problem.
Essentially, this analysis is diagnostic, not therapeutic. The idea is that, if we
understand how stupidity works, we may be able to control its effects a little better.
Its impossible to defeat it altogether, because its part of human nature. But
its effects can be significantly reduced by knowing its there, and understanding how
it works and thus not being caught by total surprise.
Ive discussed this, to a limited extent, in The Power of Stupidity. (As all
stupidologists know, the subject is so vast that such short comments can only scratch the
surface; but if Ive been able to prompt readers to think about it, that is the
biggest achievement I could possibly imagine.)
The stupidity of every single human being is a large enough problem. But the picture
changes when we consider the stupidity of people who have power that
is, control over the destiny of other people.
As in the first two parts, I shall continue to follow the Cipolla definition of stupidity,
intelligence etc. But there are substantial differences when the relationship is not of
equals. One person, or a small group of people, can influence the life and wellbeing of
many more. That changes the cause-and-effect relations in the system.
Power, large and small
Power is everywhere. We are all subject to someone elses power and (except
perhaps in the case of extreme slavery) we all exert power on others. Personally, I loathe
the concept, but its part of life. Parents have (or are supposed to have) power over
their children, but children have a great deal of power over their parents, which they
often use quite ruthlessly. We may be owners of cats and dogs, horses or
hamsters, elephants or camels, sailboats or cars, phones or computers, but quite often we
are subject to their power.
It would be far too complicated, for the sake of this subject, to get into the intricacy
of human relations. Therefore I shall concentrate on the most obvious cases of
power: those situations where someone has a defined role of authority over a
large (or small) number of people.
In theory, we all tend to agree that there should be as little power as possible, and that
people in power should be subject to control by the rest of the people. We call that
democracy. Or, in organizations, we call it leadership, motivation,
distributed responsibility, sharing and personal empowerment as opposed to
authority, bureaucracy, centralization or formal discipline.
But there are relatively few people who want real freedom. Responsibility is a burden.
Its quite convenient to be followers. To let rulers, bosses,
opinion leaders, gurus of all sorts, movie stars and television
personalities set the pace and do the thinking and put the blame on
them if were unhappy.
On the other hand, there is a somewhat special breed of people who enjoy power. Because
they are so dedicated to the substantial effort and sacrifice needed to gain large power,
We must assume that the Cipolla theory applies: there are just as many stupid people in
power as there are in the rest of humanity, and there are always more than we think. But
two things are different: the relationship and the attitude.
The power of power
People in power are more powerful that other people. That isnt as obvious as
it sounds. One might argue that this is not always so. There are apparently powerful
people with less real influence than some who are much less visible. But for the sake of
this discussion we must stay away from that problem. Regardless of how and why actual
power is held and used, this is about real power. The uneven relationship caused by the
fact that some people have a stronger influence on circumstances than others and in
many situations a few people can do good or harm to many.
A basic definition in the Cipolla theory is that the effect of behavior must be measured
not by the yardstick of whoever does something, but from the other end the point of
view of whoever is subject to the effects of that persons acts (or lack of action.)
The clear result of this basic concept is a drastic shift in the Cipolla grid. The harm
(or good) is much larger, depending on the number of people involved and the impact of
actions and decisions.
If a person in an equal relationship gains as much personal advantage as the
damage it causes to someone else, that person is a perfect bandit in the
Cipolla definition, someone else is perfectly hapless, and the system as a
whole is balanced. This is obviously not so when there is a difference in power.
In theory, we could assume that as the percentage of intelligent or stupid people is the
same the effect of power will be balanced. But when power deals with large numbers of
people the one-to-one relationship is lost. It is much more difficult to listen, to
understand, to measure the effect and the perceptions. There is a Doppler
effect, a shift, leading to an increase of the stupidity factor. All serious studies
of power systems (while they are not necessarily based on the notion that power is stupid)
point to the need for power separation, and for power conflicts to be formalized to that
they dont lead to violence, in order to avoid absolute power (i.e.
extreme stupidity.) Thats a big enough problem to keep us all on constant alert
against any exaggerated concentration of power and to explain why so many things
arent working as well as they should. But there is more.
The power syndrome
How do people gain power? Sometimes by not even trying. They are entrusted by
other people, because other people trust them. They have natural leadership and a sense of
responsibility. This process, more often than not, produces intelligent power.
A situation in which the chosen leaders do good for themselves and a lot more for
others. Sometimes it can lead to deliberate sacrifice, when people do harm to themselves
for the benefit of others (if that is done intentionally it doesnt fall into the
hapless category because of the moral good, including self perception and the
approval of others, gained by the person who deliberately places common good over private
interest.) But there are much fewer examples of such intelligent power than we
would all like to see. Why?
The reason is that there is competition for power. People who dont seek power per
se, but are more concentrated on doing good for others, have less time and energy to spend
on gaining more power or even holding on to what they have. People who have a greed
for power, regardless of its impact on society, concentrate on the struggle for power.
Most individuals are placed somewhere between the two extremes of that spectrum, with many
different shades and nuances. But the powermongering element is the most aggressive in the
power game and therefore gains more power.
Even people with the most generous initial motivation can be forced, over time, to
dedicate more energy to maintaining or increasing power to the point of losing
sight of their original objectives.
Another element, that makes things worse, is megalomania. Power is an addictive drug.
People in power are often led to believe that because they have power they are better,
smarter, wiser, than ordinary people. They are also surrounded by sycophants, followers
and exploiters enhancing that delusion.
Power is sexy. That isnt just a manner of speech. There is an instinct in the nature
of our species that makes powerful people (or people who appear to be powerful) sexually
attractive. Though most people playing the power game are too busy with it to be able to
have any decent sex or to care about emotion, affection and love.
People who have or seek power are as just as stupid or intelligent as any average
person. They are often quite clever, astute and mischievous. But if we follow the Cipolla
theory, that measures intelligence and stupidity by the effect of behavior, not motive or
technique, the result is a definite shift, as shown in this graph, where the red arrow is
the P (power) factor. It increases the sigma factor in the system
and causes a shift from I (intelligence) to S (stupidity.)
A careful reader may notice that the arrow is on a side. This is to allow for the
fact that a few people (those in power and their entourage) gain some advantages
and therefore the shift in the system is not from the center of the I area to
S but tends to go
from the Ib (intelligent bandit) to the Sb (stupid bandit) sector.
A few more graphs, showing other possible developments,
are included in a footnote as a separate file.
The pursuit of power increases the stupidity factor. The impact can be relatively large or
small depending on the amount of power (the importance of matters influenced by power and
the number of people subject to its effects) and on the intensity of the power struggle.
This is the most relevant, if not the only, exception to Cipollas Second Law. It
remains true that «the probability of a person being stupid is independent of any other
characteristic of that person.» But power, as a system, is much more stupid than any
single ordinary person can be.
The problem it that power can be limited, controlled, scrutinized and conditioned
but not eliminated altogether. Humanity needs leaders. Organizations need people who take
responsibilities, and those people must have some power to perform their role.
So weve got to live with power and its stupidity. But that doesnt mean
that we must accept it, tolerate it or support it. Power should not be admired, trusted or
even respected unless it shows practical intelligence in what it does to us and to the
world. As far as I can see, there is no universal or standard solution to this
problem. But we are half way there if we are aware of it and if we never allow
ourselves to be blinded or seduced by the treacherous glitter of power.
An effective antidote to the stupidity of power is the ability of some people to make
things work without placing themselves in a power role. As explained in a
wonderful little story written seventy years ago and called Browns
Job. Indice Pagina Indice Forum
by Giancarlo Livraghi
A footnote to The Stupidity of Power
In addition to the graph in The stupidity of power there are a few other possible
hypotheses that can be analysed using the Cipolla grid.
Lets assume, for instance, a situation in which intelligent power
prevails. We would probably see a trend like this.
Power, in this case, deliberately chooses to offer greater
advantages to the community than to itself, to the point sometimes of
accepting some disadvantages if they help to improve general wellbeing (as already noted,
in this case people in power can not be defined as hapless or
The shift to the upper part of the Y axis is unlikely to be fast, but it tends
to be steady and consistent. Such situations are not impossible. There are nearly always a
few in some parts of the system. But they depend on unusually well tuned, well motivated
teamwork harmonies that arent easily generated or reproduced, and can fall
apart because of changes in the environment or disruptions in their structure.
Rare as they are, such teams are extraordinarily effective. The observation of history and
facts confirms that real innovations and improvements in society are much more likely when
there are synergetic teams, active symbiosis, instinctive cohesion and strong humanity.
Carlo Cipolla wrote that «Whether one considers classical, or medieval, or modern or
contemporary times one is impressed by the fact that any country moving uphill has its
unavoidable sigma fraction of stupid people. However the country moving uphill
also has an unusually high fraction of intelligent people who manage to keep the
sigma fraction at bay and at the same time produce enough gains for themselves
and the other members of the community to make progress a certainty.» The result is a
situation like the one shown in the next graph (where the red area marks the position of
people in power, the green is the rest of the community.)
There are no arrows in this graph because, in the most
favorable circumstances, such a system can remain stable (or make slow progress, as
indicated in the first graph.) In a stabilized situation people in power are likely to
have greater advantages than the rest, but as this works for everyones benefit it
isnt a problem as long as two (opposed but synergetic) stupidity factors
dont get into the picture: servility and envy.
I dont want to complicate the picture, but I think there is one relevant comment. In
some particularly efficient organizations the two areas overlap, because there is no
hierarchy and responsibilities are shared. Ita a well known fact that this is the
most intelligent form of human cooperation and it can produce extraordinary
Such systems era basically strong, but they are exposed to damage. They can be warped by
internal problems, such as stupidity factors or power syndromes. Or they can suffer from
changes in the environment or be disrupted by intervention from the outside which
(deliberately or by mistake) upsets their delicate balance.
After this short digression on intelligence we must go back to the unfortunately
overwhelming subject stupidity. At the end of his essay Carlo Cipolla pointed out
that «In a country which is moving downhill, the fraction of stupid people is still equal
to sigma; however in the remaining population one notices among those in power
an alarming proliferation of the bandits with overtones of stupidity and among those not
in power an equally alarming growth in the number of helpless individuals. Such change in
the composition of the non-stupid population inevitably strengthens the destructive power
of the sigma fraction and makes decline a certainty. And the country goes to
hell.» Of course this applies not only to countries as nation-states but also
to any sort of human community large or small.
In this case the postion of people in power, and of the rest of the people, is placed as
we see in the next graph.
Its hard to understand, in this type of situation, if the
stupidity of power generates widespread stupidity or vice versa. In most cases both
contribute to a vicious circle and so the entire system deteriorates, as shown
by the arrows in the graph.
Sometimes this trend can be reversed, but that requires a very special combination: the
convergence of intelligent people that can gain power and a strong collective thrust for
In the absence of such an intelligent mutation, or of an outside influence
that changes the basic criteria, over time the system tends to explode that is, to
If a chaotic situation occurs before there is
irreparable damage to the entire ecosystem... almost anything can happen. A turbulent
vortex generates countless openings for stupidity, but intelligent
developments are not totally impossible.
As I said at the beginning I am deliberately staying away from any specific
application of these concepts. But we can all experiment as we wish on all sorts of
practical situations (from the general state of the planet to large or small communities.)
As Carlo Cipolla suggested at the end of his book, we can print out (or draw on a piece of
paper) as many blank grids as we wish and fill them in by placing individuals or
groups of people in the appropriate places. Indice Pagina
BROWN'S JOB Unknown
author about 1930
Brown is gone, and many men in the trade are wondering who will get Browns job.
There has been considerable speculation about this. Browns job was reputed to be a
good job. Browns former employers, wise, grey-eyed men, have had to sit still and
repress amazement, as they listened to bright, ambitious young men and dignified older
ones seriously apply for Browns job.
Brown had a big chair and a wide, flat-topped desk covered with a sheet of glass. Under
the glass was a map of the United States. Brown had a salary of thirty thousand dollars a
year. And twice a year, Brown made a trip to the coast and called on every one
of the firms distributors.
He never tried to sell anything. Brown wasnt exactly in the sales department. He
visited with the distributors, called on a few dealers, and once in a while made a little
talk to salesmen. Back at the office, he answered most of the important complaints,
although Browns job wasnt to handle complaints. Brown wasnt in the
credit department either, but vital questions of credit got to Brown, somehow or other,
and Brown would smoke, talk, and tell a joke, untwist the telephone cord and tell the
credit manager what to do.
Whenever Mr. Wythe, the impulsive little president, working like a beaver, would pick up a
bunch of papers and peer into a particularly troublesome or messy subject, he had a way of
saying, «What does Brown say? What does Brown say? What the hell does Brown say?
Well, why dont you do it, then?» And that was disposed.
Or when there was a difficulty that required quick action and lots of it, together with
tact, and lots of that, Mr. Wythe would say, «Brown, you handle that.»
And then one day the directors met unofficially and decided to fire the superintendent of
No. 2 mill. Brown didnt hear of this until the day after the letter had gone. «What
do you think of it, Brown?» asked Mr. Wythe. Brown said, «Thats all right. The
letter wont be delivered until tomorrow morning, and Ill get him on the wire
and have him start East tonight. Then Ill have his stenographer send the letter back
here, and Ill destroy it before he sees it.» The others agreed, «Thats the
thing to do.»
Brown knew the business he was in. He knew the men he worked with. He had a whole lot of
sense, which he apparently used without consciously summoning his judgment to his
assistance. He seemed to think good sense.
Brown is gone, and men are applying for Browns job. Others are asking who is going
to get Browns job bright, ambitious young men, dignified older men.
Men who are not the son of Browns mother, nor the husband of Browns wife, nor
the product of Browns childhood men who never suffered Browns sorrows
nor felt his joys, men who never loved things that Brown loved nor feared the things he
feared are asking for Browns job.
Dont they know that Browns chair and his desk, with the map under the glass
top, and his pay envelope, are not Browns job? Dont they know they might as
well apply to the Methodist Church for John Wesleys job? *
Browns former employers know it. Browns job is where Brown is.
YESBUT - WHYNOT
Unknown author about 1990
Yesbutters dont just kill ideas. They kill companies, even entire industries.
The yesbutters have all the answers.
Yesbut were different. Yesbut we cant afford it.
Yesbut our business doesnt need it.
Yesbut we couldnt sell it to our workforce.
Yesbut we cant explain it to our shareholders.
Yesbut lets wait and see.
All the answers. All the wrong answers.
Whynotters move Companies
The next time youre in a meeting, look around and identify the yesbutters, the
notnowers and the whynotters. God bless the whynotters. They dare to dream. And to act. By
acting, they achieve what others see as unachievable.
Why not, indeed? Before the yesbutters yesbut you right out of business.
Copyright by Gianfranco Livraghi www.gandalf.it
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